Aaron Bates remembers taking the snap, standing up and bouncing
lightly on his feet.
The Michigan State holder figured Notre Dame would be caught off
guard, but with the fake field goal actually in progress and the
defense reacting, he needed to stay calm. The man he was supposed
to throw to was caught up at the line of scrimmage, so Bates took a
few steps to his right.
”The old quarterback instincts – you kind of move where the
space is,” said Bates, who played quarterback in high school
before becoming a valuable punter for the Spartans. ”Just kind of
react. Don’t even think about it.”
Bates found an open man that night last September and completed
one of college football’s most dramatic passes of the season.
Charlie Gantt’s 29-yard touchdown catch in overtime gave the
Spartans a 34-31 victory over Notre Dame, and the play – called
”Little Giants” – was a much-needed boost for a Michigan State
program struggling to get over the hump.
The 15th-ranked Spartans play at Notre Dame on Saturday in a
”Had it not won the football game, it would be a bad big play,
I guess,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ”Because of
the circumstances in the game, all the circumstances after the
game, the whole thing, it probably took on a little bit more of a
Dantonio had a mild heart attack after the game, but he
eventually came back to lead Michigan State to a share of the Big
Ten title. It was quite an improvement for the Spartans, who went
6-7 the previous season and weren’t viewed as much of a threat
nationally before facing Notre Dame last year.
The Spartans trailed 31-28 in overtime that night and faced
fourth-and-14 when they lined up for what would have been a 46-yard
field goal. The kick was no gimme, so Dantonio called for a
”Obviously, we were all-in at that point. Thankfully, it worked
out for us,” linebacker Max Bullough said. ”It gives a lot of
confidence. It shows that Coach D has a lot of confidence in us as
The fake didn’t go exactly as planned. First, Michigan State let
the play clock run down – so low the Big East released a statement
the next day, just to confirm that officials handled the play
correctly when they didn’t call a delay of game penalty.
Then, Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell – who was supposed to be the
primary target – had to fight his way through traffic at the line.
As Bates began his impromptu rollout, Bell fell head over heels
while trying to shake loose – but two Notre Dame players went down
next to him, enabling Gantt to run free into the secondary.
”I knew the fake was available, and I knew it was something
that Coach Dantonio was interested in calling,” said quarterback
Kirk Cousins, who had come off the field after Michigan State’s
overtime drive stalled. ”But I didn’t know what the fake looked
like, didn’t know anything about it. I don’t pay a whole lot of
attention to that part of the game – let them handle that.
”I trusted Aaron, because I know Aaron well and I trust him
with the ball in his hands.”
It turned out to be a simple throw for Bates and a miserable
ending for the Irish.
”I think the down and distance was a bit of a surprise. We know
in that situation, regardless of it, we had to defend it better,”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ”But no, I thought it was a
great call. It worked.”
In the immediate aftermath, Dantonio’s health scare overshadowed
the play, but Michigan State was able to build on the win. The
Spartans started 8-0 en route to an 11-2 season, and ”Little
Giants” is the moment everyone seems to remember.
”I guess I’ve seen it enough times now,” said Bates, who is a
graduate student at Michigan State and has no football eligibility
left. ”It doesn’t quite get me as pumped up as it did.”
Dantonio has sought to downplay the memorable play. Beating
Notre Dame (0-2) again won’t be easy.
But if the Spartans (2-0) do add another win to this impressive
run they’re on, the significance of last season’s springboard will
”It’s just another play at the end of a game that either you
win or sometimes you lose. I guess that’s the way I’ll always look
at it,” Dantonio said before smiling ever so slightly. ”Just glad